Turkey’s jailed Kurdish leader Demirtaş accuses Erdoğan of power grab

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is seeking to ensure victory in the next election by “illegally” trying to ban Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party, its former leader told AFP from jail on Sunday.

The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) — the third largest group in the parliament — has been under pressure for years over alleged links to Kurdish militants who have been waging a war against the state since 1984.

Dozens of HDP lawmakers and leaders have been arrested and jailed on terror and other charges which they deny and rights groups view as politically motivated.

Former HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş — a two-time challenger to Erdoğan in presidential elections — has been behind bars since 2016 despite calls from the European Court of Human Rights for his release.

The party now faces the risk of being shut down after Turkey’s top public prosecutor accused it of links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in a filing with the Constitutional Court on Wednesday.

“The main reason they are trying to shut down the HDP is to let the People’s Alliance win the upcoming election,” now scheduled for 2023, Demirtaş said in a written response to questions from AFP.

He was referring to the electoral alliance between Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its ultra-nationalist junior partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), who are slowly losing support in most opinion polls.

“This reason alone is enough to make the case (against the HDP) illegal and illegitimate,” he said from the prison in Edirne, northwestern Turkey, where he is being held.

“I hope the Constitutional Court will not give credence to this irrational behavior and will reject the case.”

‘Immature democracy’

Turkey’s Western allies have roundly condemned the attempt to dissolve the HDP.

The United States said it would “further undermine” democracy while the European Union warned it “would violate the rights of millions of voters”.

Demirtaş called the prosecution of his party a symbol of Turkey’s “immature democracy and repressive mentality.”

Turkey has in the past shut down other pro-Kurdish parties for alleged links to the PKK whose insurgency has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

The PKK is recognized as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union and the US. The indictment before the Constitutional Court accuses the HDP of having “organic” ties to the militants.

Demirtaş rejected the charges.

“No matter what kind of obstacles are put in our way, our politics will continue to grow,” he said.

“The only thing I am sure of is that we will not give up on the right to democratic politics and governance.”

But he added in a self-critical note that the party should consider whether it was making any political mistakes.

“I want to say independent from the closure case that we should review our own shortcomings through self-criticism,” he said.

“We should better explain ourselves to the society. We should do this no matter whether (the party) is shut down or not.”

‘Keep on fighting’

Demirtaş risks up to 142 years in prison if convicted of links to the PKK and other charges now before the courts.

The indictment put before the Constitutional Court last week accuses the HDP of being a threat to the “indivisible integrity of the state” and seeks to ban 687 party members — including Demirtaş — from engaging in politics for five years.

The bans appear to be aimed at making sure current members are unable to form a new party under a different name should the HDP be shut down.

Asked about his political future, Demirtaş said he was already “de facto politically banned” due to his detention.

But “even if I am not a member of a political party or I am not a candidate, I will keep on fighting together with the people, shoulder to shoulder,” he said.

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